On the Winds

Climate Change, Weather, and Time

Don’t forget to listen to the most recent episode of my podcast, “What Is X?”, with Jeff Dolven talking about Poetry.


A 1916 article in the Journal of Agricultural Research may help us to clear up one common misconception concerning a central metaphor in the work of Plato. The philosopher seems to enjoy those occasions (as in Theaetetus 210b) on which Socrates is made to say to an interlocutor who has come up with an argument that is clearly going nowhere, that the argument has no real life to it, but is a mere “wind-egg”. In Raymond Pearl and Maynie R. Curtis’s “Studies on the Reproduction of Domestic Fowl”, we are reminded of the true meaning of this term, alongside its occasional variants, “dwarf-egg”, “witch-egg”, &c. A wind-egg is not, as many of us likely imagine, a hollow egg-shell, as in some craft traditions when the yolk and white are blown out through a pin-hole so that the fragile thing may then be decorated and set on the mantle with no expiration date. It is, rather, an egg that is generated by the wind — “wind” modifies “egg” not in the sense that the egg is itself “windy”, but in the sense that it is “wind-caused”: thus a modifier more like the first element of “sea glass” than of “milk chocolate”. To be more precise, a wind-egg is typically produced in the springtime, when all of nature is fecund, as Zephyros (one of four ἄνεμοι or wind-deities, each corresponding to one of the cardinal points) has emerged from his cave and stirred up a gentle breeze, bringing buds to the trees and verdancy to the fields. Inevitably some of this wind makes its way into the reproductive tracts of hens, where it conceives something like what a cock could have helped her to come up with. But since the wind is not itself a cock, it can only yield up a bare, generic creature, and not a little chicken formally and specifically similar to itself. Pliny the Elder tells us in turn that the same wind is responsible for the many generations of wind-foals born along the Tagus River in Portugal, to mares that have been covered by no stallion. These little quasi-horses may live up to the age of three, we learn, but, lacking at least half of the essence of horse, they are inevitably condemned, like the arguments of Socrates’s adversaries, to go nowhere.


If I could I would draw up the true map of Europe, with a thick line demarcating its two broad regions: in the one of which the inhabitants believe that a current of air running through your home, with a window open at each end, is a dangerous thing that can kill you, or at least make your joints ache; and in the other of which the inhabitants find nothing more vivifying, nothing more life-affirming, than such a draft. This line would correspond roughly to the one marked out by the Protestant Reformation, which is also the one that, again only approximately, separates the Germanic from the Romantic. In Germany there are stories of “Föhn-sickness”, in reference to the warm wind that sometimes rolls unseasonably down mountain slopes, the Alpine equivalent of the Canadian “chinook” that is known to come down the eastern side of the Rockies and to melt the Edmonton ice mid-January. But modern Germans seem to invoke the Föhn’s powers mostly in jest, and are sufficiently at ease with the prospect of inviting smaller doses of it into their own homes as to have given its name, in a verbal form, föhnen, to the use of an electric hairdryer. The further we move to the east and to the south, however, the more menacing drafts of air become, and in the Slavic and Orthodox regions they are often personified as a sort of spirit or supernatural being. In Russia a wind-current running through an open house is known as a сквозняк/skvoznyak. The first part of the word, skvoz, is a preposition that suggests motion “through”, and the suffix -nyak, as in comparable words such as бедняк/bednyak (“poor guy”), suggests that we are dealing here with a human-like agent. If you are sitting around in a high-rise apartment bloc in Ryazan, or in a wood-plank dacha in Karelia, and the son-in-law in his undershirt has opened the kitchen window to smoke a cigarette while the grandmother in her headscarf has left the balcony or the front door ajar as she beats the carpets just outside, you are likely to hear the mother, on the couch in front of her Brazilian telenovela, muttering: Vot skvoznyak, “Here comes the through-guy”, as if some concrete villainous being had arrived, as when a fox is moving through the henhouse.


Properly understood, that iconic “Great Red Spot” on Jupiter would best be described not as a “thing”, but as an “event”: a weather event, to be precise, one that has lasted several hundred years. It is, namely, an anticyclonic storm, first observed by Robert Hooke in 1665, and still going strong. We may wish to ask, however, what the difference is between an atmospheric event and a feature of the planet properly speaking, when it comes to our solar system’s two “gas giants”. Jupiter and Saturn do have solid cores, somewhere down there where no person or probe will ever arrive before being crushed by atmospheric pressure, but it would seem arbitrary to say that whatever happens in the gaseous part of these planets is “weather”, while what happens in the solid part is “geology” (setting aside the obvious problem with the extension of geo- beyond our own planet). But then we can turn this same reflection back upon the earth in turn: why are ocean currents, or continental drift, or the formation of stalactites, or the generation of eggs by hens, not, also, weather? 


What is weather? Its etymology is not, as one may have hoped, connected to “whether”, as in “that which may be either one way, or the other” —“Whether the picnic is on or not depends on whether it rains”—, though both words have equally fascinating Germanic pedigrees. The modern German Wetter originally described the sort of ferocious wind you might encounter at a mountain peak, and later took on the primary connotation of “bad weather”, or, as is said in German, Unwetter, where the prefix that ordinarily signifies negation or absence, Un-, comes instead to indicate intensification (as in Untier — seemingly “non-animal” but literally “monster”, or Unkraut — seemingly “non-herb” but literally “weed”). At the outset then we may say that weather, strangely, is something the negative instances of which are also its paradigm instances. Yet the German and English words for “weather” are outliers among European languages, while far more commonly the term that is used is the same as the word for “time”: French le temps, Romanian timpul (or the variant Slavic-rooted vremea); even the Finno-Ugric pocket of Hungary calls both time and weather by the same word: idő. Already from this lexical tour we may infer that at some earlier stage what we today call “weather” was conceptualized primarily in a phenomenological sense, as the most basic experience of “in-the-world-ness”. Yet the overlapping history of these two concepts, time and weather, should only make us wonder at the profoundly different connotations each would come to have in late modernity. Imagine what the reception would have been, had a deep-thinking philosopher of the early twentieth century come out with a book entitled Being and Weather, rather than Being and Time. The latter sounds like it is probing into the most profound questions of our existence; the former sounds like the work of a curious and humble gardener or almanac-keeper noting down the year’s first frost or the date of the swallows’ departure. As Mick Taussig noted some time ago, the very fact that to “talk about the weather” is generally held to be the most superficial or banal form of communication available, by which fragile and awkward social acquaintances are just barely maintained, already reveals the full gravity of our modern alienation from the forces that shape our existence. Strangely, in the most recent years, when climate has pushed itself on us as the most important issue of our age, we have been correspondingly instructed never to make the common yokel mistake of conflating climate and weather. And thereby we have been reassured that we may go on dismissing the latter notion —so important to our ancestors as to have been a synonym of Time itself— as just so much small-talk. I suspect on the contrary that we will never really take climate seriously, no matter how well we learn to mouth what we know we are supposed to say about climate change, until we are in a position to take weather seriously once again.


The “scientific” alternative to both “weather” and “time” is of course “meteorology”, which strictly speaking is the science of meteors. From the time of Aristotle to René Descartes’s Les Météores of 1637, meteors were not only the incandescent bodies entering earth’s atmosphere —“falling stars”, as folk tradition calls them—, but rather any of the many sorts of “mixed body” that most commonly are found in the atmosphere, or in that region of the cosmos above the surface of the earth, but beneath the moon. These include lightning, clouds, rain, hail, and, of course, wind. To be “a mixed” (or “mixt”) in the classical sense is already to have a certain amount of that formal je-ne-sais-quoi which in animals is called a “soul”, but at a somewhat lower level, since the form here involves no organic structure or differentiation of functions across the different parts of the body in question. Meteorology is thus a science of nature, like biology, that is concerned with entities composed of inseparable matter and form (“hylomorphic compounds”), while both of these sciences are rather different from astronomy, or the science of the celestial beings, in that these latter are composed entirely of a single element, while everything in the sublunar realm is composed of several elements and thus subject to eventual corruption. This, incidentally, legend has it, is part of why Galileo’s discovery of sunspots sat so poorly with his enemies in the Church hierarchy: if the Sun has spots, then it must be composed of more than one element, which is to say it must be the sort of place that has weather… which is to say, in turn, that it must be mortal. Meteorology, like biology, is thus the study of various sorts of mortal or fleeting things, of things that come and go.


On the Situations and Names of the Winds is the title of a fragment of a pseudo-Aristotelian treatise, most likely written by a later author of the Peripatetic school. The two-page work identifies and briefly describes the names not just of the four anemoi, but gives a wind-name to each of the twelve points of the so-called “wind-rose”, slightly less poetically the “compass rose”, which is the figure seen on classical nautical charts and maps that shows the cardinal points as well as points intermediate. Thus there is not only Zephyros in the West, Boreas in the North (whom, incidentally, Homer had held responsible, rather than Zephyros, for the aeolian impregnation of mares), and so on, but also Caecias in the Northeast, Leuconotus in the South-Southwest, and so on. Little of this system would survive into the early period of global navigation, when the so-called “portolan charts” of the Genoese would identify the winds according to Italianate and largely de-personified criteria — thus the North wind is the Tramontana, from beyond the Alps, the East wind is the Levante, which is of course also the name of the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean. The Scirocco is technically the Southeastern wind, though it would also carry with it the quality of Saharan dust and the threat of pestilence — as late as Thomas Mann’s 1912 Death in Venice, the lead character knows he needs to get out of that city at the first hints of an arriving Scirocco, if only he could muster the power to turn his eyes away from young Tadzio. In both agricultural and maritime settings, the names of the winds were at once practical and phenomenologically basic: to step outside and to feel them was to know how things were in the most basic sense, to “know which way the wind is blowing”, as we still vestigially say, and to find the language to speak of it.


To say that On the Situations and Names of Winds is a “pseudo-Aristotelian” text is to say among other things that it is the sort of text Aristotle could have written. He did in fact write of the names of the winds in his own Meteorology, and in the History of Animals he also, like Pliny, attributes to the wind the power to impregnate horses. To recognize that a philosopher, indeed “the Philosopher” as he was long known, could have been expected to write about the winds, and to do so in his capacity as a philosopher, is an occasion to think about the shifting priorities of a discipline that is unusually difficult to define. These days you can go to college and take a class called “Philosophy of Sport,” but on no list of course offerings will you find, say, “Philosophy of the Sun”. You can take a class called, “Philosophy of Journalism”, but you cannot take one called “Philosophy of Wind”. We take it for granted that this is how things should be, but a moment’s reflection will force you to admit that, if philosophy is reflection on the most important things in life, then the Sun surely deserves its own class well before “sport” does. There is no “sport” without the Sun, whereas the reverse is obviously not the case. Wind might be less important than the Sun, but I would place it well before “sport” or journalism on the list of things that fundamentally shape our lives. Similarly “Philosophy of Climate Science” is hot stuff these days; “Philosophy of Weather” is non-existent. If I were ever permitted to teach a course on the philosophy of wind, I would begin with the questions: How did the winds lose their names? And what does it mean for us to live in a world of nameless winds? I step outside and I feel a gust. “That’s wind,” I think to myself, and I have nothing more to add beyond that. I don’t know the winds. Not knowing them, I perceive their arrival as vaguely hostile, depressing, an unnamed impediment to my modern-man’s plans: “some weather thing”, as Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly complains in The Devil Wears Prada, when a hurricane delays the take-off of her private jet. I suspect that the loss of the names of the winds is part of the same process that made us forget the twinned nature of the concepts of time and weather. When Miranda Priestly is delayed by a hurricane, she is forced to recall this twinning.



It seems to me the last philosopher to write about nature in a way continuous with the classical tradition of natural philosophy was Gaston Bachelard, and this has something to do with the fact that for much of his career Bachelard was a rural schoolmaster rather than an urban, status-anxious university professor. He did not write a philosophy of wind, though he did write a psychoanalysis of fire. Here “psychoanalysis” is not understood in the Freudian sense, and has nothing to do with the subconscious symbolism of fire in our dreams or erotic fantasies. Bachelard, rather, is analyzing the soul of fire itself, trying to figure out what fire essentially is, through the combination of his cultural erudition, his scientific literacy, and his poetic imagination. More recently one might be tempted to cite the name of Peter Sloterdijk, who writes entire tomes on things like bubbles. But as far as I can tell it never takes very long for Sloterdijk to move on from the bubbles themselves to other things that the idea of the bubble might help us to understand, things that are held to be more important than real bubbles (just as “sport” is more important than the Sun), like the metaphorical bubbles of financial markets and so on. Now more than ever, I think, we need to revive the tradition of Bachelard, which as I’ve said is continuous with the way philosophy was understood for most of its history, and to pursue the philosophy not just of wind but of bubbles too, and of fire and of the Sun: in themselves and for their own sake. I’m serious about this.


The sharpest assessment of the life-work of the anti-philosophy philosopher Richard Rorty, which may just as easily have been an assessment of Heideggerian “overcoming of metaphysics” or of François Laruelle’s laughable “non-philosophie”, came from the historian of science Steven Shapin. “Anti-philosophy,” he wrote, “like philosophy, is the business of the philosophers.” Increasingly I’ve been noticing the need to adapt this observation to a different context: anti-capitalism, like capitalism, is the business of the capitalists. My somewhat peculiar form of life has brought me in the last few years into close contact with people inhabiting vastly different class habituses, from migrants in shantytowns to Silicon Valley “thought leaders”. I have noticed a fairly sharp regularity: the higher you move in this scale of being, the more likely you are to hear people talking the talk of bringing down the system that has thrust them to its top. This has at least the appearance of a paradox, yet I’ve come to believe that they are doing this for no better reason than that it is “good for business”. The anti-capitalist capitalists are indeed playing chicken, as they have to hope that what they are saying will be taken seriously enough to get them what they want, but not seriously enough to get them what they say they want. Among the things they say they want, I’ve also noticed, are radical transformations in the nature of our energy consumption: they would like for example to end our reliance on fossil fuels, and to move to a relatively greater reliance on wind power. They absolutely love to talk about the climate, while they only talk about weather when they have to: at the beginning of awkward encounters when they don’t really know what else to say.

Suggested further reading:

Gaston Bachelard, La psychanalyse du feu, Gallimard, 1938.

Craig Martin, Renaissance Meteorology: Pomponazzi to Descartes, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

Lyall Watson, Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind, New York Review Books Classics, 2019 [1984].

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